Climate change educator: School classrooms must catch up with science

Frank Niepold
Frank Niepold, climate education coordinator at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, spoke to a group of about 70 teachers at the School of Environmental Studies in Apple Valley, Minn., on June 17, 2015.
Elizabeth Dunbar | MPR News

Scientific knowledge on climate change has improved by leaps and bounds. Now it's time to improve what we're teaching students about it.

That was the message the federal government's coordinator on climate change education delivered on Wednesday to a group of about 70 teachers. They were in the Twin Cities this week attending an annual institute organized by polar explorer Will Steger's group, Climate Generation.

"This is what I see when I talk to students: They want to learn about this much, much more. Because they see this as an incredibly relevant part of their learning," said Frank Niepold with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Climate Program Office.

Niepold says demand for information about climate change among students and teachers has grown exponentially in recent years and schools are working harder than ever to meet that demand.

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"We're partnering with, as a set of scientific organizations, to fulfill the demand as opposed to driving the demand," Niepold said of the federal government's efforts. President Obama's administration launched a climate change education effort in December.

Niepold said improving instruction on the topic will involve teaching students more about earth science, risk and probability, which might have to come at the expense of other, more traditional subjects.

While schools are making progress, there's a long way to go, Niepold said.

He referenced a 1992 United Nations treaty on climate change that included an entire article on climate change education, saying "we've not really fulfilled this." Even by 2005, the term "climate change" didn't appear in national science education standards, and greenhouse gas only appeared once.

Part of the challenge in the U.S. is that most decisions about curriculum are made at the local level. Niepold said another challenge for teachers and students who want to learn about climate change is being able to navigate information on the Internet, where there is a lot of inaccurate information on the topic.